ED-209 librarian

c: | f: /

Please scan your books. Not there… there. No, THERE. Error detected. Eject. You have twenty seconds to comply.

In the endless march towards making everyone redundant and having badly designed software handle the tasks that humans perform much better, the local library is the next casualty.

I went to return two books today on behalf of my wife. I approached the reception desk and proffered them to be met with blank stares. Unsure if maybe I’d ventured outside again with plastic explosive taped to my face, I checked and found none, so figured it must be something else.

And it was. Here’s the exchange:

Me: Just returning these.
Librarian: Use the self-service machines.
Me: Can’t I just drop them off here? The place isn’t busy.
Librarian: No.
Me: I prefer interacting with humans.
Librarian: So do most people, but the machines are not being used and they’ve paid for them.
Me: Crazy.
Librarian: Let me show you how to use them.

As a rule I don’t need help being shown how to use technology, but I’m damn glad she was there. It involves the following procedure:

  1. Approach machine.
  2. Touch screen to say “Return books”. Other options were “Borrow books” and “Jump through hoops of fire for no visible gain.”
  3. Put books in a wide slot beneath the screen, but don’t put them too far or into the belly of the machine. Yet. There’s a sort of empty table showing column headings.
  4. Wiggle the books about a bit until the (presumably) RFID scanner finds the tag.
  5. Take both books out because the scanner can’t cope with them both at once.
  6. Offer them one at a time, wiggling a bit, left, right, up a bit, oh there’s a beep.
  7. Book title appears on the screen in the hitherto empty table. It’s not the book we’ve borrowed. It’s the one from the guy using the machine next to us.
  8. Hit cancel / ‘x’ and try again. Success this time.
  9. Do wiggle dance with other book. Title appears on screen.
  10. Hit Next
  11. Confirmation screen shows the titles and next to each one is an instruction on what to do with the book. The first says “put in machine” so I find the correct one from the two in my hand, slide it in, om nom nom, it’s gone. The other one says “place on trolley”. What, any trolley? There are three nearby. “No, they go on this one,” says the librarian, clearly inconvenienced by the fact I don’t innately know to which trolley it’s referring. She takes the book from me and wedges it among a shelf of other books.
  12. Then I have to hit “OK” to say I’ve done it.
  13. Next it displays a series of error confirmations because there’s “a problem with your account” but it won’t divulge what it is. “Is there an outstanding balance on your account?” she asks. I shrug. “It’s not my account.” She seems annoyed I’d have the audacity to return books on behalf of someone else, like I was committing some kind of dirty library fraud. “Do you have the card with you?” I shake my head. “It’s my wife’s.” The librarian tuts and taps through a few more screens of whining dialogue and gives up with, “She must owe some money. Next time she’s in, tell her to come to the desk and settle it”. I dare to ask, “Can I settle it here at the machine?” Of course the answer’s no.

It’s a similar ritual when borrowing books, with the addition of the steps:

  • Wave library card in book slot before proceeding with the scan/wiggle dance.
  • Obtain printout from machine saying when books are due back, at great expense to the environment compared with the traditional little card stuck inside the front cover which is only replaced when it’s full of date stamps.

Seriously, the council are scratching their heads over why people aren’t using the machines? The answer’s simple to anyone who actually tried it to perform a book-based task: the software’s not fit for purpose. When borrowing books, if there’s any outstanding “errors” on an account, I’d still have to queue at the desk to sort them out, doubly wasting my time.

I dislike being told off by a machine for not doing something I didn’t know I was supposed to do. To me, that’s a design fault. Call me old fashioned, but interacting with people is so much more natural. Last time I was there, by way of small talk, I asked the machine what it thought of Murray’s Wimbledon victory as I slid the book into its digital tummy. It didn’t seem to have an opinion.

Computers! So heartless.

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